President focuses on health, energy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- President Bush proposed new initiatives last night to boost U.S. technological competitiveness, tackle spiraling health care costs and wean the nation from foreign oil in an election-year address aimed at easing public angst about the war in Iraq and his leadership at home.

Bush held out hope for additional troop reductions in Iraq this year but rejected calls for a "sudden withdrawal," defending the war in a State of the Union message that drew stark contrasts with his opponents.

While calling for bipartisanship on foreign and domestic issues, Bush portrayed his critics as willing to shrink in the face of difficulties.

"In a complex and challenging time, the road of isolationism and protectionism may seem broad and inviting, yet it ends in danger and decline," Bush said.

Seeking to place the war in Iraq in the context of a broader fight against terrorism -- a theme that national polls indicate is his strongest -- Bush outlined what he called "a clear plan for victory in Iraq" and said it was keeping Americans safer.

"We cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders. If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores," Bush said.

The president attempted to pre-empt his war critics, laying out what is likely to be a prominent campaign theme for Republicans this year.

"There is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure," Bush said. "Second-guessing is not a strategy."

Democrats, hoping to capitalize on Bush's low popularity and recent Republican scandals to make gains in the November elections, painted the president as incompetent and out of touch.

"There is a better way," was the repeated refrain from Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, selected by Democrats to deliver the party's response to Bush's speech.

The government "should serve the American people, but that mission is frustrated by this administration's poor choices and bad management," Kaine said. "Families in the Gulf Coast see that as they wait to rebuild their lives. Americans who lose their jobs see that as they look to rebuild their careers. And our soldiers in Iraq see that as they try to rebuild a nation."

Bush's speech reflected his diminished popularity after a difficult year and the limits of his power as his party looks toward the November elections.

The president steered clear of ground-shaking policy proposals -- such as his failed plan to reshape Social Security, featured prominently in last year's speech -- opting instead for a narrower wish list that reflects voters' top concerns.

He referred only in passing to the large budget deficit that has accumulated during his five years in office and did not mention the Medicare prescription drug benefit, panned by conservatives as too costly and beset by implementation problems that have left some seniors confused and alarmed.

Bush aggressively defended the warrantless spying program he began at the National Security Agency, asserting that he has the legal and constitutional authority to carry it out and painting the operation as a centerpiece of his administration's efforts to protect Americans against terrorists.

"If there are people inside our country who are talking with al-Qaida, we want to know about it, because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again," Bush said, calling the eavesdropping his "terrorist surveillance program."

He stood behind his goal of spreading democracy, even though the recent victory of the Islamist party Hamas in Palestinian elections pointed up the practical difficulties of implementing it, especially in the Middle East. Bush, returning to a prominent theme of his second inaugural address last year, said the struggle would ultimately make the country safer.

Bush strongly condemned Iran's government, accusing it of sponsoring terrorism and saying "that must end." The Iranian government is "defying the world with its nuclear ambitions," he said, expressing "respect" for the country's people and hope that the United States could someday be "friends with a free and democratic Iran."

Bush also defended his domestic policies, promoting his tax cuts as an engine of economic growth and calling on Congress to make them permanent.

The president called on Congress to pass health care tax breaks that would benefit people who buy high-deductible insurance plans and open Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), which allow them to save tax-free to pay for medical expenses. He proposed making premiums for those plans tax-deductible and increasing the amount individuals and employers could contribute.

The proposal is designed to encourage people to take charge of their own health care decisions, which Bush argues would drive down medical costs. He also called for medical liability reform to combat "lawsuits that are driving many good doctors out of practice," and for wider use of electronic health records.

Democrats pounced on the health care plan before it was announced, saying it would prompt employers to stop offering group health insurance and leave patients to fend for themselves in the expensive and complicated medical market. They have long criticized HSAs, created as part of the 2003 Medicare law as an approach that benefits primarily healthy people and those who can afford a $2,000 insurance deductible, leaving poorer and sicker patients with exorbitant premiums.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, said the plan "fails to reduce health care costs, fails to increase access to quality health care for the 46 million Americans who do not have health insurance, and adds to our enormous deficit."

Republicans, however, praised the proposal. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the Finance Committee, said Congress should keep "an open mind" on the HSA plan, adding that his panel would examine it in hearings next week.

Still, in a sign of the year's political realities, Bush's wish-list read somewhat similarly to Democrats', with calls for training more engineers, boosting research on renewable fuels, and enacting immigration laws that include what the president called "a rational, humane guest-worker program."

Republicans praised the address as visionary and bold. Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader, said Bush gave "an optimistic vision of what makes America great and a challenge to all Americans to work together to fulfill our nation's highest ideals."

Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader, said Bush focused on the right issues but offered the wrong solutions. Bush "overreached by threatening to privatize and dismantle Social Security" in 2005, Reid said. "This year, he reached for too little."

Bush called for a sweeping new government commitment to boosting the nation's competitiveness in the global economy, geared toward keeping U.S. workers, scientists and businesses ahead of expanding economic powers such as China and India.

"The American economy is pre-eminent, but we cannot afford to be complacent," Bush said.

The proposal, which the White House said would cost $136 billion over 10 years, would include doubling funding for basic research in the physical sciences, an area where spending has remained flat in recent years as government and corporate labs have focused on applied research.

Bush also called for a permanent extension of tax credits for research and development, which the White House said would cost $86 billion over the next decade.

The initiative also would include training 70,000 teachers to teach Advanced Placement math and science courses; the recruitment of 30,000 math and science professionals to teach those subjects as "adjunct teachers" in high schools; and programs to improve elementary and middle school math education.

The innovation initiative was a nod to scientists, executives and lawmakers for both parties who have called for a governmentwide innovation agenda akin to the U.S. response to the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik.

Academics, business leaders and members of both parties cheered Bush's innovation proposal, drawn in part from a 2005 National Academy of Science report that recommended a $10 billion-a-year federal commitment to improving economic competitiveness.

Declaring that the United States is "addicted to oil," Bush called for a 22 percent boost in research on developing alternative fuels and clean automobiles, with an emphasis on renewable fuels that can be made from weeds, grasses and sugar cane, among other natural products. The funding would also go toward developing clean-coal, solar and wind technologies, and nuclear energy. His goal, Bush said, is to reduce U.S. imports of Middle Eastern oil by 75 percent in the next 20 years.

He appealed to his conservative base, whose confidence in Bush wavered last year amid his failed bid to partly privatize Social Security, his botched response to Hurricane Katrina and his ill-fated nomination of Harriet E. Miers to the Supreme Court.

Bush referred to the Supreme Court's "two superb new members," Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr., whose confirmation t hours before the speech reflected the success of Bush's campaign to leave a conservative imprint on the court. And he called for legislation to ban human cloning.

Bush called on Congress to work with him to create a commission to study ways to stave off a looming crisis in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid with the retirement of baby boomers -- projected to swell those programs to unaffordable heights -- asking his audience to "put aside partisan politics, work together, and get this problem solved."

But there were flashes in the House chamber of the bitter partisanship that pervades Congress.

When Bush noted that Congress did not act on his Social Security plan last year, Democrats stood and applauded as Republicans sat quietly. Bush then argued that "the situation gets worse every year," prompting Democrats to sit as Republicans clapped.

julie.davis@baltsun.com

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